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Sir George Houston Reid GCB GCMG KC

1845 – 1918

Sir George Houstoun Reid GCB GCMG KC (1845-1918) was Australian prime minister from August 1904 to July 1905. Brought to Australia at the age of seven, he was admitted as a barrister in 1879 and elected to the Colonial parliament as a Free Trader in 1880. As a minister, and then as both Premier of New South Wales and Colonial Treasurer from 1894 to 1899, Reid greatly increased the number of schools, aided adult education, cut government spending, reformed the land tax laws and created an independent non-political Public Service Board to administer the service. Despite his 'Yes-No' attitude to federation, he insisted the move should be approved by a majority of the electorate, rather than by parliamentarians alone. Leader of the Free Trade Opposition from 1901 to 1904, Reid was involved in the general jockeying for power in the first Commonwealth parliaments. In 1904, he allied twice with a group of Protectionists, first to tip out Deakin and then to overwhelm Watson. These machinations put the Free Traders into power, with Reid as Prime Minister, and he soon plotted what was known as the 'fusion' of the two conservative parties in the hope of destroying Labor. However, during his first month of government, his own party narrowly survived a no-confidence motion and in July 1905 Alfred Deakin used Labor support to oust him from power, claiming that Reid was 'inordinately vain and resolutely selfish, a consummate tactician even more cunning [than Parkes] and if anything exceeding him in violence and variety of vituperation.'

Reid retired from Parliament in 1908. Two years later he was appointed Australia's first High Commissioner in London, an office that he filled with great aplomb. He became a popular after-dinner speaker in London society circles, and by 1916, when Andrew Fisher replaced him as High Commissioner, he was so well established in Britain that the Liberal Party offered him a safe seat in the House of Commons. He held the seat until his death in 1918 - the only Australian ever to have sat in the Colonial, Commonwealth and Westminster Parliaments.

Reid was a popular subject for caricaturists, although Alfred Deakin claimed that even a cartoonist could not do justice to Reid’s ‘immense, unwieldy, jelly-like stomach always threatening to break his waistband, his little legs apparently bowed beneath its weight, [and] his thick neck rising behind his ears rounding to his many-folded chin’. Illingworth's medallion sculpture is a welcome straightforward representation of Reid that emphasises his ambition and intelligence rather than his avoirdupois.

Updated 2018